Walk through the Museum of Egyptian antiquities – the one in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that was briefly attacked during the recent Egyptian unrest – and you can be overwhelmed. Room after room is filled with ceiling-high shelves jammed with amulets, jars, effigies, statues, and hundreds of thousands more pharaonic-era pieces.
Egypt is a time tunnel of human habitation. In the space of a few miles you can be transported from a swank, 21st-century hotel to a dusty Mameluke-era mosque to a 5,000-year-old temple to the sun god. Humans have lived on the narrow ribbon of green that the Nile bisects since before hieroglyphics were around to tell their story.
It is tempting to think of Egypt as the land of Akhenaten, Cleopatra, Tutankhamen, Mehemet Ali, and Napoleon. More remarkable than the treasures and legends they left behind, however, is the continuity of Egyptian society, the patience and organization that nameless generations of Egyptians needed to apportion the Nile’s water and live side by side on its banks.
Nowhere is that millenniums-old social compact more evident than at Tahrir Square, the vast open space at the center of downtown Cairo that most days teems with business people, students, peasants in simple galabias, women in smart dresses, others camouflaged in black abayas, buses overflowing with passengers, trams, vans, sparkling Mercedes, banged-up clunkers, donkey carts, and bicycles laden with two or more riders – an amiable chaos softened by an ever-present aerosol of desert sand.
A thousand small disputes and as many spontaneous smiles erupt every minute in Tahrir Square. Horns honk in consternation. Friends walk hand in hand. The overwhelming feeling is of a great mass of humanity living and letting live.
The Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who made his way to the square every morning for breakfast, once was asked why he didn’t have heroes in his writing. Because he believed in the dignity of ordinary Egyptians, he said. All they wanted, he believed, was freedom – “Freedom from colonization, freedom from the absolute rule of a king, and basic human freedom in the context of society and the family.”
Tahrir means freedom. To the Nobel laureate, freedom wasn’t individuals rocketing off on solo journeys of self-discovery. Freedom came with society and family, continuity and context. For a closer look at the epochal struggle for freedom in Egypt and beyond, see this special report in the Monitor.
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.